TV Review: The Get Down part 1
6 April 2017 Film and Television
By: Brooke Forrest
The Get Down is a Netflix series from Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet). It takes place in the Bronx during the summer of 1977; a highly inspirational time of heatwaves, blackouts and crime, as well as a time of great creativity in New York City. This was a period that fostered the creation of rap and punk and allowed for a golden age of graffiti. We follow many creative beginnings in The Get Down, but most notably the start of hip-hop.
The show starts off a little closer to modern times, in the 1990s, when a concert is taking place. The artist in question is our lead character, Ezekiel “Zeke” Figuero. He is an adult at this point in time and a successful rap artist. The adult version of Zeke, played by Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs (but voiced by Nas), often serves as narrator to our story. Through his rhymes, we are given details about the story we are about to watch. This is not only Zeke’s origin story but also the story of the birth of hip-hop and the city of turmoil it was born in.
Late 1970s Bronx is our main setting, where we follow a young Zeke and his friends, especially his on-again-off-again neighborhood crush, Kylene. Zeke and Kylene are played by excellent newcomers Justice Smith and Herizen F. Guardiola, each of whom is full of legitimate musical talent and have great chemistry. While attempting to navigate their relationship, they find themselves sucked into various creative pursuits. Kylene wants desperately to be a disco star; the only problem is her strict, overly-pious pastor father, played by the always great Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad and Do the Right Thing), whose own troubled past haunts him. Then by a series of chance events Zeke finds himself on the frontlines of a new style of music, hip-hop.
The Get Down plays like a musical, full of tons of original songs and impressive performances. The rapping on the show can at times feel a bit more advanced than the early world of hip-hop was, but it is forgivable due to the joy that comes from watching Zeke masterfully spit out rhymes with undeniable skill. His superpower is certainly the word. Maybe most people are not born poets with the ability to pull out well-thought-out prose in a moment’s notice, but it only further pushes the fact that his character is a born rapper who was just waiting for this art form to be created.
We see much of this art form develop and grow in the show. We even see real-life pioneers of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash (played by a perfectly cast Mamoudou Athie) and DJ Kool Herc represented. Luhrmann does make great strides in attempting to show a mostly accurate 70s NYC, and even does a good job showing some of the creative genesis of the time. However, the bulk of the characters and situations are just historical fiction, representations of the many people who had lived in this time and had a hand in the culture and movement. Even though they may not be real the ensemble of characters is really impressive. That being said, it is often, much like most Luhrmann creations, a work of fantastic fantasy. People looking for a faithful treatment of the history of hip-hop will probably be frustrated by the show’s glossy portrayal. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a watch. It is obviously often paying homage to its inspiration, but for some, it can feel like an inauthentic ripoff. But The Get Down is supposed to be a fun mythic saga centered around some real events and music.
The music is where the show undeniably shines. It is unsurprisingly full of phenomenal 70s music, from disco to rock and of course early hip-hop; it even briefly begins to touch on the start of punk. They also touch on other great creative aspects of the era, including B-boys, break dancing, voguing, ball culture, graffiti and more. I only hope that these other fascinating creations and cultures get even more time next season. With the help of the great soundtrack and impressive artistry Luhrmann really does do some justice to this clearly ambitious project.
On top of the creative elements of the show, the characters themselves are a big part of what makes this show enjoyable. Shameik Moore (Dope) plays enigmatic street hustler Shaolin Fantastic. Shaolin is a jack-of-all-trades who has decided to take up the art of DJing and recruits Zeke and his friends. Zeke’s best friend, Ra-Ra (played excellently by Skylan Brooks) often serves as the heart and voice of reason. His brothers Dizzee and Boo-Boo (Jaden Smith and TJ Brown Jr.) often serve as comic relief. The show also features some criminally underrated actors, including Kevin Corrigan as a sleazy but loveable music producer and Jimmy Smits as a morally dubious community leader.
This communal journey of self-discovery and coming of age leads many of our characters down confusing, and sometimes conflicting, paths to the possibility of success or power. While many of the younger characters are faced with all the challenging choices of youth, they also have very exciting possibilities on the horizon. Despite the difficult lives that many of them were born into, through the power of music and art they find themselves in worlds of hope. Though the story is often supportive of these kids and their dreams, there are a few scenes that touch on really troubling topics (and frustratingly often just handle them as brief plot devices) further proving the rough lives these characters face. The other problems with the show are sort of understandable and expected. Like many projects that come from Luhrmann, The Get Down can be a bit over the top, opting for style over substance at times; however, given some of the more fun and artistic elements of the show, it often works for it rather than against it. It is rare to see such a love letter to creation and creativity.
The Get Down is a commendable and entertaining attempt at telling the story of important and unique timeframes and art forms. I look forward to the second half of the series coming out tomorrow. The first half takes you through the start of this musical journey and hopefully, the second half will bring more closure for our characters as well as more coverage on hip-hop history – or at the very least more fantastic music.
The Get Down part two airs April 7 on Netflix.